Wes Anderson’s debut film, “Bottle Rocket,” garnered enough buzz upon its release to secure studio financing and a big name like Bill Murray for his second feature, Rushmore. It was a huge critical success, thanks in equal parts to a thoughtful script, inspired direction, and the caliber of the performances, garnering new respect for Murray and making Anderson the “It” director.
Hopes were high for his next film, The Royal Tenenbaums, which –despite its all-star cast – fell short in its attempts to tread the line between comedy and tragedy, a task Anderson accomplished much more capably in “Rushmore.” Like its predecessor, “The Royal Tenenbaums” was heavy on irony, but none of the characters were fleshed out enough to leave the impact of the former’s Herman Blume or Max Fischer.
Anderson and Murray return to the big screen with “The Life Aquatic with Steve Zissou.” Murray plays the title character, an oceanographer obviously inspired by Jacques Cousteau. As a scientist, however, Zissou is more akin to one of Murray’s earlier characters, “Ghostbusters’” Peter Venkman. More P.T. Barnum than Matthew Maury, he laments his declining popularity and failing equipment while still interacting with the public as if he were still on the scientific A-list.
“The Life Aquatic” opens with the death of Zissou’s oldest comrade and best friend Esteban, at the hands of something called a “jaguar shark,” the aftermath of which is caught in one of Zissou’s documentaries. The grieving oceanographer swears revenge, never mind his lack of funding, dilapidated ship (The Belafonte), and strained relationship with wife Eleanor (Anjelica Huston). Oh, and there’s a reporter from the Oceanographic Institute (Cate Blanchett) doing what appears to be a hatchet piece on him, and some pilot from Kentucky named Ned (Owen Wilson) just showed up claiming to be his son.
With a crew that includes Willem Dafoe as a dour German and Seu Jorge as the Brazilian safety expert who punctuates each scene with Portuguese covers of David Bowie songs, Zissou sets off on his half-hearted quest, thanks to Ned generously donating his inheritance to fund the expedition. Along the way Zissou will clash with his scientific rival Hennessy (Jeff Goldblum, playing a note-perfect prick), battle pirates, and eventually attempt to come to terms with his life and the people in it.
“The Life Aquatic” is a Wes Anderson film through and through. Thanks to him, “quirky” has become one of the most overused words in entertainment writing, and there’s no lack of his signature touches throughout the movie. From the use of stop-motion animation to represent various forms of sea life and the attendant nonsensical scientific terms (“wild snow mongoose” and “rubber tide” being my personal favorites) to the impressive shots of the interior Belafonte set, Anderson always rewards the careful observer in his films (stay for the end credits if you’re a fan of a certain ‘80s sci-fi movie that also starred Jeff Goldblum). It’s a beautiful picture to look at, as all of his films are, but good use of color and mixing up your film stock do not a classic make.
As has come to be the case more and more with Anderson’s films, the preciousness of his direction and increasingly forced goofiness overshadow the story at hand. This was apparent in “The Royal Tenenbaums,” and there are similar problems in “The Life Aquatic.” “Rushmore,” Anderson’s first major studio picture, was also his best when it came to juggling comedy and drama, but here he tries to go too far in either direction, as the early absurdity in “The Life Aquatic” smothers the emotional impact of some of the later, more tragic scenes.
The subdued performances of several of the principal actors are also a problem. Murray received critical hosannas for his performance in Lost in Translation, which was – to my mind – a less accomplished portrayal than Herman Blume. Here, Murray expands the role of dissolute, middle-aged guy that’s becoming his calling card. Zissou is, unfortunately, too understated of a character to compete with the goofiness going around him. The same goes for Wilson, playing against stoner type as Ned, the aforementioned pilot looking for a father figure (another Anderson staple), and Huston, sporting a perma-scowl as Zissou’s long-suffering wife. Blanchett, Bud Cort, and Goldblum are better, and there are some good laughs sprinkled throughout, but it’s not enough. “The Life Aquatic” will ultimately be remembered more for the trademark Anderson look than for any of its characters or any emotional impact, a description I fear might become the norm for Wes Anderson films.
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